This week a Conservative Home poll found that a clear majority of Conservative Party members conclude that Sir Keir Starmer would be “the most effective Labour leader”. More relevant, and perhaps more surprising, is that a poll among Labour members also put Sir Keir in the lead by a big margin. The YouGov survey, in partnership with Queen Mary’s University, shows him winning in the final round against Rebecca Long-Bailey by 61 per cent to 39 per cent.
The other contenders are all quite a bit further behind. YouGov says:
“When asked about the seven candidates most likely to run for leader, 36 per cent of the membership said their top preference was Keir Starmer, 13 points ahead of Rebecca Long-Bailey on 23 per cent. Jess Philips is in third place on 12 per cent, while Emily Thornberry, Lisa Nandy, Yvette Cooper, and Clive Lewis all poll in single figures. This excludes the 12 per cent of party members who are undecided.”
How reliable is the poll? It is early days. We don’t even know who all the candidates will be. But it is a wide margin and this pollster has done reasonably well with member polls in the past. YouGov’s poll of Conservative members in July showed Boris Johnson beating Jeremy Hunt – though the final result was not by as wide a margin as the figures that YouGov had. The last leadership contest in the Labour Party was in 2016 when Corbyn was challenged by Owen Smith. Corbyn won 61.8 per cent to Smith’s 38.2 per cent. For that one, a YouGov poll of Labour members was pretty much spot on.
Long-Bailey had been thought by some pundits to be the favourite. That calculation was based on her offering continuity to the approach of Jeremy Corbyn. It was felt that would reflect the views of most Labour members. Since Corbyn’s defeat of Owen Smith, surely Labour’s membership must have shifted still further to the Left. That is the indication of the election results to Labour’s National Executive Committee – where the Momentum-backed slate of Corbynistas get around twice as many votes as their Blairite rivals from the Progress faction. The longer Corbyn’s leadership continued, the more social democrats would cancel their membership subs while new recruits would be attracted from fringe Marxist groups.
Yet there has been the small matter of the last month’s General Election result where Labour members will have spotted that they were trounced. Labour activists might still wistfully long for the overthrow of capitalism. They will still sing the old songs and wear the old badges. All that comforting agitprop camaraderie. Yet grudgingly, they might concede that discretion would be prudent, gradualism, some “compromise with the electorate.” There are also some on the Left, especially the younger members, who are staunchly anti Brexit and never really appreciated Corbyn’s equivocation on the matter – despite their admiration for him more generally. Labour Party membership is especially high in London – the woke element not only from Islington, but Lambeth and Camden, Hackney and Brent. Older sentimental socialists might be attracted to him being a successor to the man he was named after – Keir Hardy was a founder of the Labour Party and its first leader from 1906 to 1908.
Starmer offers a compromise. He is not a Corbynista, but he served in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet. As a former human rights lawyer, he has a certain radical chic (he helped environmental activists who were sued by McDonalds for libel back in the 1990s) – but also a knighthood and a care about the words he uses. His rivals such as Philips or Cooper were more outspoken in attacking Corbyn – and so find it harder to be forgiven. Starmer was part of the team, while also a keen Remainer. Leftists might feel that Starmer is really on their side – while offering a bland and reassuring face to the public. Not inspiring – but then not frightening either. Thus Starmer might emerge through the sectarian balancing act. Each phrase carefully judged to placate one group without alienating another. The problem for him is that even should he win the leadership he would be a prisoner of the Left. The Marxists would still be a dominant force among Party activists. Would it really be a change in leadership that would be enough to win back the former Labour voters who angrily abandoned the Party last month due to Corbyn’s extremism? They want a clean break, a clear repudiation of Corbynism. A serving of lawyerly fudge will not do.
Older readers will recall that Labour had a landslide defeat in 1983. Then a long march under Neil Kinnock of two more General Election defeats – in 1987 and 1992. Kinnock denounced the Militant Tendency and distanced himself from Arthur Scargill. Labour policy shifted to the centre. Peter Mandelson was recruited as the Director of Communications. “A government which business can do business with,” promised its 1992 Manifesto. The Financial Times came out for Kinnock. CND was ditched. The police embraced.
All that wasn’t enough. Only when Tony Blair came along, did enough people decide it was safe to vote Labour. Starmer could well be the new Kinnock. He might not even manage that. It could be that Labour’s decline continues under him. It would be rash to predict that as Keir Hardie was Labour’s first Leader, Sir Keir Starmer will be its last. But nor is it clear that the Starmer era would be a period of recovery for the Party at all.